The idea to visit the Polar Park came to me before the first free day. I was browsing all these tourist brochures, and when I saw an ad for 'the world's northernmost wildlife park'... Well, it easily beat all the other options. I love animals. And this park actually promised a meeting with wolves! What could be better to do on a free day than visit wolves!?
So I started trying to plan this trip; it was not exactly a simple exercise as it is 185 km from Tromso, a 2.5 hour drive (longer if you take a bus). One of the challenges was finding someone to go with me. If I had found no one, I would have gone on my own, but it seemed like the kind of thing it was better to do with a group. First I offered the idea to everyone on my team. Amazingly, no one was willing to undertake a short 2.5 hour drive for the sake of meeting wolves. I cajoled them as much as I could without actually begging, but finally I had to accept that no one was interested in going. Our men's captain John Donaldson told me that I could find some 'hungry wolves' at the Bermuda party, but that didn't seem like a good enough substitute.
Coincidentally, I found the New Zealand team at the Tromso Tourist Office, and they were interested in making the trip. But on the eve of the free day, I got an email from the Polar Park saying that Wolf Camp wasn't available on August 7th (the first free day) and I decided it wasn't worth the trip if I couldn't do wolf camp. But it was available on the second free day, August 13th, so I started to plan for that. I reserved a rental car with GPS (a small fortune: $377 for one day!) and continued to look for people to join me.
By the evening before the trip, I had just one person confirmed: GM Tigran Kotanjian, Armenia's reserve board. Tigran had been 'resting' since the second round, so there was no reason for him to avoid a sightseeing tour. There were three more spots in the car, and it was certainly desirable to fill them to lessen the exorbitant cost of renting the car (btw, the bus trip cost would have cost around $80/per person anyway). Through the help of my old acquaintance from NY, Alex Averbukh, who now plays for Japan, I found two Japanese players, Ryosuke and Azumi, wanting to go, and a third one came to me in a less standard way: in my persistent search for co-adventurers, I had left my contact info with the Tourist Office. I had asked them to pass it on to anyone who came to inquire about the Polar Park. On Tuesday night, I got an email from a German tourist named Christian, who was staying at Tromso Camping (where several of the African teams were lodged as well) and he became the final person on our adventure.
The planning had taken some time, but in the end, the car was full and we were on our way! We were a diverse group: an American, an Armenian, two Japanese, and a German.
Even though 2.5 hours is not a short time span, it did not feel like a long drive (it would have been a lot shorter if the speed laws did not constantly make you go at 50 or 60 km) and on the way there, we only made one short detour to ask for directions. The GPS was not very helpful out in the middle of nowhere. It was an overcast rainy day, but still the beauty of the nature around us was evident, with mountains, rivers, and waterfalls accompanying us on our drive.
We started with the guided tour of the park at one p.m., stopping at the enclosures of the four Nordic predators. The guide would get into the enclosures of the animals, and her presence (with snacks) would be enough to entice the animals to appear. The enclosures are large areas, so if the animals choose not to make themselves seen, you can stand there for a long time without seeing anything! Thus, the feeding time is a good way to ensure that visitors will catch a glimpse of all the main 'attractions'. The park also has a wolverine but apparently he has not been seen in a while.
The first animal that we saw was the lynx. As you can see the lynx is part of the cat family, bigger than a regular cat but smaller than a cheetah or jaguar. It has a short tail and distinctive tufts on the tips of its ears, which apparently are a hearing aid. Lynx climb trees easily and are good hunters. They have a very soft tread and you cannot hear them move at all! We saw two lynx, whose stripe pattern was quite different, and the guide pointed out that all lynx have different stripes. Incidentally, lynx are carnivores and one of the things they like to eat is mice. When I visited a zoo in Stockholm, en route to Tromso, I saw a lynx carry away a mouse.
Our next stop was the Arctic foxes, who are socialized to humans and seem quite happy to make an appearance in exchange for snacks.
Our guide feeding a fox
At "fox camp" we could feed them out of our hands
Incentivized by the treats we were offering they would ...
... climb on our backs. Notice the long claws on these seemingly harmless creatures.
Unlike the lynx, foxes, and wolves, the guides don't enter the enclosure to feed the bears – they throw meat over the fence.
Unfortunately, I could not take the standing
bear picture without the fence in
the way, because there is a second fence that stops visitors getting too close.
So how was I able to get this picture without the fence in the way?
Well, this is a different bear! It was in another enclosure, which was below us, so we could put our cameras within the apertures within the fence to get clear shots. In this enclosure lived two bears (one of them an albino) and two wolves. We were told that the wolves and bears got along just fine, and they have a big enough space that they don't need to see each other all day.
It was funny to see how at feeding time the wolves would try to steal food from this bear (they're faster and seem to have a better sense of smell). But they avoided any direct confrontation with him, as I guess they have figured out who is stronger.
The moose: not the rarest animal in the world, but what majestic antlers!
Two of the predator groups are socialized to humans: the Arctic foxes and the wolves. That means it's possible to visit them inside their enclosures. Of course, I was most interested in the wolves. Our visit with them began a little after 3 p.m. As we were waiting for our rain suits (the only downside to this day was that it was raining cats and dogs and we were pretty much completely drenched by this time), our guide spent 10-15 minutes explaining the rules of interaction with the wolves. This was a good moment to pay careful attention.
We were going to enter the enclosure with two guides, one leading us in and one at the rear. First we would ignore the wolves, walking to our designated area and then we would crouch down on our knees. This was a key point: the visit was going to take place with us in that position, because we could not interact with the wolves on a higher plane than them. Standing up meant we weren't interested in interaction. But we couldn't stand and then try to pet them, because it would appear as a threatening gesture to them.
Once we were on our knees, the wolves would come and meet us, licking our faces. We had to remember that the meeting would take place on their terms; when they wanted to come to us, they would.
It was not easy capturing these moments with the wolves, as the rain was pouring down, we were completely soaked, our phones were getting wet, and we had to be careful taking the phones out of our pockets as we'd been warned that wolves are very curious animals who might take a bite out of your pocket to see what it is that you are reaching for. But here is what we managed:
If the wolf left you, you just had to sit and wait for him to come back. We could scratch their chests and around their ears, but we wouldn't be giving them any hugs.
We should also behave in a dignified way: no laughing, no screaming, no loud noises. Basically, nothing to scare the wolves. The guide told us that one genius had entered the enclosure and showed their tongue to the wolf. The wolf did not like that.
Finally we should not leave anything unattended. We could hold our cell phones in our hands but we should not put them on the ground, because the wolves love to take things and chew them up. As we were getting these instructions, it crossed my mind to ask: what's the worst thing that's ever happened during these wolf visits? But then I decided it was better not to know.
There were three wolves living in this enclosure, all siblings, two sisters and a brother. We would interact with two of them, the male and the higher ranking female. The lowest ranking wolf, called the omega, was not allowed to approach us by her higher ranking siblings.
The sweet and somewhat forlorn omega wolf who was left out of the fun
I had watched some documentaries on wolves, including a great one called “Living with Wolves” by Jim and Jamie Dutcher, so I knew something about wolf hierarchy, and wasn't surprised about this. The omega wolf always eats last and I guess interacting with guests is also a privilege that she doesn't share. If she were to approach us, she'd be attacked by her sister (who is the one who usually disciplines her).
Now a story in pictures (with a tiny bit of interpretation for the benefit of the reader):
The initial meeting between Tigran and the highest ranking female
He is mesmerized by her beauty, and gazes into her eyes
Apparently, she reciprocates his feelings!
Our time in the enclosure went very smoothly and we really didn't have much to be apprehensive about. The guides had warned us that we might see some intra-wolf aggression, which is usually the scariest thing, especially if it takes place right in front of you. But it would be an issue between the wolves, and the aggression would not be directed at us. Towards the end of the visit, the male wolf did snarl and bare his teeth, while his sister tried to placate him with some sounds of appeasement and rubbing her head against him, and at that moment you get a very good reminder that these creatures have a dangerous side.
So happy with her wolf encounter – Irina Krush, reigning US Women's Champion
It's hard to balance these two wolf natures. On one hand, they were so friendly with us and filled us with so much positive energy. Their eyes are gentle and they are so beautiful!! And then there are those large teeth, the menacing snarl, and the jaws that I later read have 'a bite force of 1500 pounds per square inch, capable of crushing the thighbone of a moose.' The experience of meeting them was exhilarating and unforgettable!
Our final stop in wolfland was a visit with three-month-old cubs who are being socialized to humans. This was decidedly less stressful than meeting grown up wolves.
Completely soaked in the pouring rain we met with a group of three-month-old wolf cubs...
... who were inquisitive and playful. They
enjoyed climbing on us and practicing their wolf kisses.
The guides told us that actually they preferred if we open our mouths for the kisses,
as they like to lick inside the mouth. Hmm, would you try that?
It was a lot of fun meeting the next generation of these beautiful creatures